These gun deaths didn't make national headlines, but they left a devastating mark
Note: This article discusses gun violence in all its forms, including suicide.
For every mass shooting that dominates the headlines, there are scores of deaths like Quinton Scott's that most people never hear about.
On July 4 — the same day a gunman opened fire on an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Ill. — Scott was shot and killed in Peoria, a few hours away.
His death didn't make national news, but it devastated the people who knew him.
"I don't know how to feel, except I feel lost," said Marcellus Sommerville, who mentored the 19-year-old. Sommerville said Scott was a curious kid with an old soul.
Sommerville runs Peoria Friendship House, a community organization where Scott was enrolled in a career development program, working towards becoming a carpenter. "He had a passion for using his hands," Sommerville said.
Staff at Friendship House had helped Scott work his way through a self-paced high school diploma program. They just celebrated his graduation in April. Sommerville said that in a lot of ways, Scott was battling life after losing his mother to gun violence at a young age.
"How do you get out of that successfully? And I feel like he was taking small steps to be successful," Sommerville said. "And then to be in a situation where his life is taken — over what, I still don't know."
Scott was shot multiple times in the chest and leg in the early hours of July 4, according to police, and driven to the hospital where he died shortly after.
The country's enormous gun death toll – more than 45,000 in 2020, the last year with available data – is made up largely of lives taken one by one. These personal tragedies aren't seared on the national psyche like Columbine or Parkland or Sandy Hook. But they tear real holes in the lives of the friends and family left behind.
Like Paula Volker, in Casper, Wy. Her July 4th started with a panic attack.
"I was actually kind of surprised. I woke up with a nightmare," she said. Last Monday marked nine years since her husband, Dale, shot and killed himself. She said the trauma had mostly dissipated, but she'll never look at the holiday the same way. "People say there's a timeline to grief, and that's not the case," she said.
Dale Volker was an avid athlete, and had just had a couple of back surgeries that left him in pain, unable to do the things he loved. One day he didn't come home from work.
"I truly believe if there wouldn't have been a gun in the home that this wouldn't have happened," Paula Volker said. "I think it was a snap decision that morning."
Quinton Scott and Dale Volker's stories are the sort that often don't register in the public's understanding of gun death in the U.S.
"Far too often, policy conversations are driven by mass shootings," said Cassandra Crifasi, a public health researcher with the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University. "That doesn't mean that we shouldn't make policies to address them, but if we focus only on those, we might miss other opportunities for intervention."
What the statistics really tell us
Troubling trends stand out among those 45,000 gun deaths in 2020.
One in every 1,000 Black men and boys between the ages of 15 and 34 was shot and killed that year, according to a Johns Hopkins analysis. That's nearly 21 times the rate of their white counterparts.
Crifasi said that's in large part thanks to decades of policies that disinvested in communities of color and systematically concentrated disadvantage. That has led to a host of issues, from limited economic opportunities to lead exposure, which are all associated with violence.
Living under that threat weighs on a person. That's what 19-year-old Ernest Willingham told a U.S. Senate Committee last month. Young people in Chicago, where he grew up, attend "more funerals than weddings," he testified. "I have seen my brother, my father, my cousin and my best friend become victims of gun violence," he said.
He told NPR that this sense of constant danger shaped the way his grandmother raised him. "I always wondered: Why didn't my grandmother let me go to certain places or why wasn't I allowed to play outside with certain kids after a certain time?" he said. As he got older, he realized she was protecting him. "She knew how dangerous it was."
Willingham learned to "maneuver" his way through the city to stay safe, leaving his neighborhood to buy groceries or visit restaurants, for example.
When it came time to apply for college, he went out of state, to Northeastern University to escape gun violence in Chicago. "I just didn't want to have to deal with that for the next four years of my life as I already had dealt with it for the first 18 years," he said.
In just the few weeks since his June 15 Senate testimony, Willingham has been touched by gun violence again. Twice.
He said his niece was shot in her own home. She survived, but he said the family left their house out of fear of another attack. And his friend Eryk Brown was shot, too.
Like Willingham, Brown said he did everything possible to avoid becoming a victim of gun violence. He got good grades and test scores, and he went out of state for school, too, to the University of Wisconsin.
"I don't have to lean towards the streets and be involved in nonsense that I don't need myself being a part of," he said.
But gun violence found him all the same.
He was home for a summer internship. He and a couple of high school friends stopped by a vegan restaurant for takeout, in a neighborhood he didn't know well.
They ordered, then went back to the car to wait for their food. Minutes later, a gunman opened fire.
Brown remembers thinking, "When is this going to be over?" And praying that he wouldn't be hit anywhere that would permanently disable or kill him.
By the time the shooter peeled off, Brown had been shot in the leg, and one of his friends in her hand. They rushed to a nearby hospital, where he said he felt discriminated against.
"I felt like I was getting profiled while being a victim of gun violence," he said. "I was just thinking like, 'Just because you are, I would say, a Caucasian, that don't mean this couldn't happen to you.'"
Both Willingham and Brown feel there's a difference between the way the media and politicians react to mass shootings like the one in Highland Park, and the way they respond to violence in their communities.
When shootings injure four or five people in Chicago, you don't see one news channel, Willingham said. "You begin to wonder, well, what's the difference between those young people that are being shot and killed in Inglewood, in North Lawndale, as opposed to those ones that were shot in Highland Park?"
Brown pointed out how quickly the Highland Park gunman was apprehended. "It just shows the amount of resources and time they put into different situations that happened to different types of people," he said.
It's a mistake to think of gun violence as a problem that only affects cities. Crifasi, the public health researcher, said she often hears places like Chicago, Baltimore and Detroit blamed for the country's high gun death rates. But the data show that many rural counties have per capita gun homicide rates just as high, or higher.
"This is not an us versus them problem," Crifasi said. "This is a whole of the U.S. problem."
Most gun deaths are suicides
Another group of people who are often lost in the discussion over gun violence is those who die by suicide. Well over half of gun deaths are suicides.
Matthew Miller, who studies the relationship between guns and suicide mortality at Northeastern University, said most people didn't know that owning a gun increased your risk of death by suicide three or four fold.
It's not that gun owners are inherently more suicidal, he said, but that "the gun itself changes what would very often be non-lethal suicide attempts, into lethal suicide attempts, because with guns, you rarely get a second chance, whereas with many other commonly used methods, you do."
That's a message that Dorothy Paugh has spent years trying to spread.
Her life has been touched by suicide twice. First, when she was a young girl, after her father had lost his job.
"He told my mother one day that she should know where the life insurance policies were kept and the will, and he went out and he bought a handgun," Paugh said.
Alarmed, Paugh's mother reached out to their priest and her husband's best friend, who came and spoke to him for hours. "But what they didn't do was take the handgun when they left," Paugh said.
The next day, Paugh's father died by suicide.
Then in 2012, her 25-year-old son Peter also ended his life with a gun.
"For a year [after his death], I was not much good at concentrating or feeling like I wanted to be here," Paugh said. But eventually, she started reading the research on suicide prevention.
And she learned that one of the most effective things you can do if someone is struggling is to ask them if they're thinking of suicide. And, if they have access to a firearm, to take it away.
Often, she said, if you can stop people in their worst moments, "Instead of finding another way to die, they find a way to live."
She reached out to her state delegate, Democrat Geraldine Valentino-Smith, who agreed to introduce an extreme risk protective order, commonly known as a red flag law.
That bill became law in Maryland in 2018 after the school shooting in Parkland, Fl. put pressure on lawmakers to act on gun control.
Paugh said she used to resent the fact that gun suicides got so much less attention than mass shootings. But she said she came to realize that people don't want to believe they will be affected by gun deaths, and that mass shootings "break that delusion."
"And as it turns out," she said, "the laws that will prevent a mass shooting also work to prevent suicides."
That's one reason why Crifasi, the public health researcher, said not to ask, "Why is this community getting attention while these others aren't?" after a mass shooting in a predominantly white community like Highland Park. Instead, she said that was a time to seek input from victims of other types of gun violence, too, to create policies that address the full scope of the problem.
It's also why, as difficult as it is, Paugh wants to make sure her story of suicide loss is heard.
"Sometimes I think I can't talk about it anymore," Paugh said. "But then, after I get rested, I have to talk again."
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